The spartan concrete basements of Tate Modern’s new Tanks are a somewhat fitting home this week to Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, a choreographer whose own works are often described as austere and functional. Early suite Fase, set to the similarly minimalist music of Steve Reich, is the first in a series of live performances to animate these hard grey spaces which the Tate’s directors hope will encourage audiences to rethink their relationship with art.
As well as bringing performance into a visual art space, Fase at the Tanks brings viewers into a much closer proximity with the work itself than is usually possible in a theatre setting. Few dancegoers can fail to be familiar with the influence and impact of de Keersmaeker’s work, and in particular with this early outing which has been performed so often both live and on film. The new setting makes visible tiny details, little moments in the choreography flattened by a proscenium arch or hidden by distance. It’s an absolute pleasure to encounter Fase up close – and one thing we learn is that it’s not so austere at all.
The space itself is hardly salubrious. An industrial concrete floor, lit with stark fluorescent strip lights and grey walls booming with echoes, it has little in common with even the fringiest of theatres and less still with a whitewashed gallery. Audiences filter in through the basement (daytime attendees should be warned: queues are long and entry is not guaranteed if the space fills to capacity) and seat themselves around the edge of a square performance area; Fase is ostensibly shown in the round, although some movements are rounder than others. The four sections (shown together as one work on two evenings and on the hour during the daytime) are danced by de Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven. Sit in the right place around the stage area and you might just get stepped over by the lady herself.
Of all the movements, the third – Violin Phase – is perhaps the most transformed by its shift from theatre to basement. On stage, the delicate traces of the dancer’s feet, a looping petal pattern that mirrors the circular construction of Reich’s rondo, are not always so obvious as they are here; and the little smiles of pleasure that cross de Keersmaeker’s face as she sweeps and scoops the air around her can go undetected. Here they’re a joy, bringing a sweetly girlish air to the piece. Now in her fifties, de Keersmaeker not only fails to look her age; she skips around her chalk circle like a girl of fifteen (from some far-distant time when girls of fifteen were playfully flirtatious rather than hyper-sexualised drinking machines).
The brutal concrete space takes on authoritarian overtones in the second movement, Come Out , in which the voice of civil rights activist Daniel Hamm is heard relating his treatment by police following a wrongful arrest for murder. As the tape of his voice, talking about letting the bruise blood out, loops again and again in an endless iteration of violent injustice, Dolven and de Keersmaeker’s intense and hard-edged jerks and slices likewise press relentlessly down onto the audience. Head grabs, shoved elbows and sudden rebounds play again and again as Hamm’s voice phases into an inhuman engine sound; both Reich’s music and de Keersmaeker’s choreography are highly suggestive without becoming overtly narrative.
The change of space has less impact on the mesmerising swings of Piano Phase , although perhaps the demanding simplicity of the movement material exposes the quality of performance even more than usual at such close quarters. Funky toe-hopping finale Clapping Music comes complete with its own clever manual pan from one side of the stage area to the other, revealing details of the movement from different angles wherever one sits. In all, the Tate Tanks make a surprisingly sympathetic place to get to know de Keersmaeker’s work afresh – and perhaps even attract some new fans.
Originally published at www.londondance.com